20 SES 02, Freedom of Every Day Interactions: Youth and Democratic Culture in Hungary
This paper explores how a group of European undergraduates make meaning of their journeys as they prepare for, participate in, and reflect upon a short-term international volunteer excursion in Kenya.
International volunteer experiences provide a rich study setting because they constitute a unique life episode (outside of one’s ordinary course) where the narrative landscape may be quite dissimilar from volunteers’ home contexts. In addition, these culturally-situated travel practices take place at the transitional period between adolescence and adulthood, envisioned as a rite of passage for the young global citizen which “comes packaged with promises of adventure, discovery, exotic encounters and life changing experiences” (Simpson, 2004, p. 1).
This paper focuses specifically on the pursuit of ‘authentic’ experience within international volunteer practice. Because traveling is a project in self-making (not simply leisure), the presumption is that the more authentic the experience overseas, the more likely it will fulfil existential desires to “endow the individual’s identity with a richer and fuller experience of being” (Noy, 2004, p. 85). Further, travel offers a mechanism wherein individuals seek fulfilment in (physically distant) spaces thought to be primitive or untouched; geographies which are “accorded a higher quotient of realness” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998, p. 30). This imagines that some level of personal enrichment is achieved by making a bodily passage through seemingly exotic (more ‘genuine’) locales.
MacCannell (1973) famously examines the ‘authentic paradigm’ in relation to Goffman's (1959) conception of front and back regions. In the travel context, the front region is considered a reception area, spaces which are accessible and ‘on display’ for the public audience. The back region, conversely, is restricted to insiders and therefore represents a place of importance, refuge and intimacy. MacCannell (1973) argues that these back regions are revered by travellers precisely because of their seclusion, where the possibility of slipping ‘behind the curtain’ to enable one’s deeper connection with the ‘native culture’ is highly valued. Tourist settings are therefore orchestrated toappear remote or ‘non-touristic’ to create the impression that the backstage has been entered, what MacCannell (1973) refers to as ‘staged authenticity.’ MacCannell (1973) contends that the tourist is unaware that they are viewing a ‘well-contrived imitation,’ perhaps because their notion of authenticity is less an appraisal based on ‘truth’ than “a projection from Western consciousness” – a symbolic authenticity based on their own expectations or imaginings of seemingly distant people and places (Bruner, 1991, p. 243).
In tow, an international volunteer industry has rapidly expanded to offer packaged experiences promising a ‘real’ (backstage) encounter with the foreign ‘other’ – the irony being that ‘authenticity’ becomes a commodity available for purchase (Simpson, 2004; Vodopivec & Jaffe, 2011; Wang, 1999). Indeed, one strong critique levied at international volunteering is that it masquerades as a genuine (non-commercial) encounter, but “paradoxically obscure[s] the most foundational of realities: the fact that the participants are there as consumers” (Mahrouse, 2011, p. 385). For example, in Mahrouse’s (2011) and Prins and Webster’s (2010) respective studies of young Americans volunteering in South America, the authors found that despite participants emphasising their desire to penetrate spaces untouched by tourism, their encounters were nevertheless confined to the ‘front regions’ of hotels, restaurants and markets (where the majority of their interactions with ‘locales’ were premised upon the purchase of goods and services). Ultimately, these findings challenge whether international volunteering is particularly distinguishable from mass tourism practice.
With this framework in mind, the research question that drives this paper is: how do participants take-up and employ notions of authenticity within their personal travel narratives, and on what bases do they claim to have had an ‘authentic’ experience?
Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 1(1), 1-21. Chase, S.E. (2011). Narrative inquiry: Still a field in the making. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (4th ed., pp. 421-434). London: Sage. Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). London: Sage. Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1998). Destination culture: Tourism, museums and heritage. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. MacCannell, D. (1973). Staged authenticity: Arrangements of social space in tourist settings. American Journal of Sociology, 79(3), 589-603. Mahrouse, G. (2011). Feel-good tourism: An ethical option for socially-conscious westerners? ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3), 372-391. McAdams, D.P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2001). Turns in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Noy, C. (2004). This trip really changed me: Backpackers’ narratives of self-change. Annals of Tourism Research, 31(1), 78-102. Polkinghorne, D.E. (1995). Narrative configuration in qualitative analysis. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 8(1), 5-23. Prins, E., & Webster, N. (2010). Student identities and the tourist gaze in international service-learning: A university project in Belize. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 14(1), 5-32. Simpson, K. (2004). Broad horizons? Geographies and pedagogies of the gap year. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Newcastle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Vodopivec, B., & Jaffe, R. (2011). Save the world in a week: Volunteer tourism, development and difference. European Journal of Development Research, 23(1), 111-128. Wang, N. (1999). Rethinking authenticity in tourism experience. Annals of Tourism. Research, 26(2), 349-370.
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